The Gradual Shift

When I hit my financial bottom, I realized that a lot of things in my life needed to change. I went through my closets and sold off a lot of my entertainment collections. I started trying out every frugal tactic under the sun. I created a debt repayment plan and hammered some of my debts with the money I made from the sales and from the frugality.

Yet the biggest shift – naturally choosing not to spend money at every opportunity – was much more of a gradual change. I didn’t wake up one morning with complete success in this area. In fact, it took quite a while before my “default” mode when I went into a bookstore was not to buy a book. It took a long time before I stopped putting unnecessary stuff into my shopping cart.

Why did it take a long time? For one, the old ways were my normal behaviors. It was just the way I had done things my entire adult life, and bulldozing those patterns – especially bulldozing a lot of patterns at once – is easier said than done. For another, I still derived a lot of personal short-term comfort from those choices. I got a nice rush from owning a new book or something like that in the short term – it was only later on when that book was read (or sitting unread on my shelf) and I realized that it had gobbled down $15 or so that I felt bad about it.

What caused an overall mind shift away from that? Obviously, from the subject of this post, it was a gradual shift. However, there were three big key elements that convinced me to break the habits of unnecessary spending in my life.

First, I focused in on one or two key areas where I had a lot of money leaks. For me, the big one was the book store. I love to read, don’t get me wrong, but buying three or four new books a week isn’t exactly a habit that creates long-term financial security.

So, to start with, I really focused on my book-buying habit. I went on a lengthy sabbatical from bookstores. I just didn’t buy any new books.

The effect of this is that it forced me to discover and utilize other methods for feeding my book-reading hobby. I found PaperBackSwap (one of my first orders from there was the remaining four Douglas Coupland novels I’d never read, for example). I rediscovered the library – and I started utilizing the waiting lists for big new releases. I started swapping more books with friends as well.

By the time I gave up on the book store sabbatical, I found that my tendency to buy books with reckless abandon had been broken. I still pick up a book on occasion, but more often than not, it’s one that I’m pretty sure I’m going to read multiple times and thus mine extreme value from.

Second, I tried to be mindful of spending in other areas but I didn’t beat myself up over failures. I found that, time and time again, if I beat myself up over a mistake, I would be much more prone to just repeat that mistake.

A much better approach for me was to simply say, “I made a spending mistake. That’s okay, though – one mistake doesn’t break me. What can I do in the future to not repeat that mistake?”

From there, I’d try different things. I eventually adopted a new driving route to work, for example. I altered my evening routine so that I’d often have a lunch packed for me to take to work the next day so I didn’t have to eat out each day.

I was mindful of my mistakes and I constantly experimented. Sometimes things would click and just work. Sometimes I’d repeat a mistake a few times. It was a learning process.

Finally, I got more involved in communities and interpersonal relationships that didn’t value spending. I started spending more time with some community groups while spending less time with my buddies that were spending money left and right in a seemingly never-ending game of one-upsmanship. I focused a lot on a small handful of personal relationships with people who reflected where I wanted to be with my life and didn’t focus as much on relationships that pulled me away from that ideal state.

Over time, I found myself doing less “going out with the boys” to do expensive things and more evenings inviting people over to our house to play board games. I found myself filling my evenings with community meetings instead of going out with people who spent most of their time being negative. I joined groups that matched my interests instead of just trying to keep up with the others in my usual gang.

The people I surrounded myself with began to gradually reinforce good spending behaviors instead of reinforcing bad ones. I no longer felt a social need to have the latest and greatest thing – and that helped a lot.

A final tip that helped: I reduced my mass media consumption. I’m not talking about the advertisements – I’m talking about a lot of the content itself. Shows where people demonstrate unbridled excitement at the possibility of winning some material item. Magazines that talk breathlessly about the latest and greatest product. Whenever I see those things, I just toss them out. I have no need to be influenced by what other people want.

It takes time – at least, it did for me. Good luck.

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